There once was a time when sports players were simply expected to train in preparation for a match or event, then just get out there on the day and perform.
The first-ever tennis champion at the Olympics, for example, was just a guy who just happened to be visiting Athens during the time of the Games. These were the same days when sports nutrition consisted of plenty of steak and high protein foods and a night out drinking to celebrate success.
These days, things are more intense. As athletes have become better, faster and stronger, they have to do more to become the very best. Today, individuals and teams will have every aspect of their lives controlled. The food they eat, the training routines they follow, even the hours they sleep will be dictated to them. Just look at swimmer Michael Phelps’ daily diet.
While this nutritional guidance is designed to keep them in the ultimate physical shape, they need to focus on their well-being, too. That’s why many elite sportspeople also call on the services of a sports psychologist to help maximise their performance.
To achieve sporting success, you need to be in the right frame of mind. But what does that mean? Let’s run through the psychological characteristics of sporting stars.
It’s hard to imagine a more pressured situation than when an athlete is expected to perform. It may be trying to hole a winning putt, score with a free kick from just outside the penalty area or pot the black to win a major snooker tournament. It’s pressure that comes from all directions. From the player themselves, from the team around them and from the millions of people who may be watching this critical moment on TV screens back home.
The secret to succeeding in many more of these moments is to keep calm, composed and remain focused. With adrenaline pumping as well as the palpable expectation in the air – plus of course the fear of failure – this may not be so easy.
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Preparing for testing moments, visualising them and imagining successful outcomes provides a far better opportunity of success. For example, in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final between England and Australia time was running out and an Australian victory seemed certain. But with 20 seconds remaining the English full back Jonny Wilkinson executed a perfect drop goal to clinch victory. It was no surprise to anyone when they discovered how hours Wilkinson dedicated to practising just such a situation arising – and this enabled him to come good when it really mattered.
Self-belief often evolves from practice. Experiencing successful outcomes builds confidence that this will become the norm. In other words, winning gives you the expectation of winning. This is particularly important in sports where a great deal of the action is outside of the player’s control and in which they have to manipulate the situation in the best way that they possibly can. One of the more unusual examples of this would be in the world of professional gambling – particularly poker playing.
With no direct influence over the cards that they, or their opponents, are dealt it is often sheer self-belief in their own strategic thinking that can carry them through. The belief that they will win the game somehow, some way.
This may be by thinking that their own bluffing skills are greatly superior to their opponents’. Or that they’re just more perceptive. Equally, it could be self-belief built on previous experience of winning against all the odds.
In a game where taking risks is commonplace, that belief that the gambles you make are going to pay off can make all the difference to the chances of victory. It’s this confidence that undoubtedly helped John Cynn walk away with $8.8 million in the biggest poker event of the year, the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas.
In elite sport, ‘good enough’ simply isn’t a phrase that anyone will ever say. There’s only one standard that’s to be attained and that’s the very best. It’s a philosophy which runs through every aspect of an athlete’s preparation and performance, because anything less than 100% just won’t do. This means that the sportspeople themselves are just as demanding of themselves as they are of everyone around them.
They might also draw on superstition to support this belief that they’re unstoppable under a uniquely particular set of circumstances. We’ve all heard about the amateur players who swear by a lucky pair of pants or who insist on always having the same locker in the changing room – and professional athletes are no different.
Take Serena Williams, arguably the greatest woman tennis player of all time. Among her quirks dating back to the start of her career are the insistence that she brings her shower sandals on to court with her as well as the habit of always bouncing the ball precisely five times before serving. These might seem eccentricities, but they’ve undoubtedly served her well.
Grit and resilience
The final trait needed in the psychological make-up of a champion is perhaps the most obvious. Without a level of mental toughness that most of us simply can’t imagine there would be no victories. It’s this ‘never give up’ mentality that has seen cyclists like Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins battle on through pain, adversity (and gravity) to win the Tour De France and tennis players like Andy Murray see off match point after match point, push through the pain barrier and prevail.
Grit not a characteristic that can be learned. It’s more of a mindset which is inherent within anyone performing at the highest level. It’s also supported by the various other psychological characteristics of elite performance, backed by the sheer confidence in ability.
So there’s no doubt that the mental state of elite sports people relies on a delicate balance of a number of elements. And, ultimately, it may be the precise combination of these that goes to make the difference between winning and losing.
Wendy Whitehead worked as a teaching assistant at two special needs schools in London before embarking on a different career as a marketing consultant.
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